Saturday 19 January 2019

Tony Ward: End rules abuse, find second set of international halves and an Irish side in Celtic Park - my wish list for season


Leinster's Jordan Larmour. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster's Jordan Larmour. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

How do you better what was achieved in 2017/18 ? It was the greatest season in the history of Irish rugby.

The bar has been set undeniably high and yet with the prudent use of playing resources, allied to a large dollop of injury-free luck, the coming calendar year could be even better again.

We can up the ante and demand of our double winners - PRO14 and Champions Cup - an even more exciting brand of attacking rugby appropriate to the larder as currently stocked.

Leinster can win it either way but the romantic in me demands that this group aim to be the Toulouse and not the Toulon of previous European times.

What is still developing at Leinster is not exaggerated in the least. The quality of underage talent coming through the system has to be seen to be believed.

The academy, specifically under Peter Smyth, but aided by Trevor Hogan, Hugh Hogan and Noel McNamara to name but some, has bridged the most vital gap of all between potential and maturation on the road to a professional career in blue.

I cannot add enough to cover what Stuart Lancaster has brought to the mix. Girvan Dempsey is now at pastures new in Bath but benefited enormously from Lancaster's arrival and that transmitted to the players and their performances.

Dempsey has made the move to the English Premiership to further develop his coaching aspirations, leaving the door open for one of the greatest and most influential players to ever represent the province to step into that coaching breach.

Time will tell if Felipe Contepomi (below) the coach can come even remotely close to Contepomi the player, but if he can then watch out.

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Contepomi in his new role as Leinster backs coach. Photo: Sportsfile

It is on the back of that and the original seeds sown by the man himself when he landed back on these shores in 2010 that sees Joe Schmidt's Ireland at their highest point and second only to New Zealand, who continue to play a game from a different planet.

I have no doubt it will be either/or in the Aviva on November 17 but for just an inkling as to why New Zealand rugby is what it is then I suggest a dip into Mitre 10 Rugby via satellite will simply take your breath away.

We are still a work in progress and I know the head coach views it precisely the same.

That said the time is right to take the next step and for every pragmatic follower who cares that must be a place in the World Cup final in October 2019.

In the interim, and in no particular order, here's my wish list for what lies immediately ahead:

1) That match officials reassert on-field control and the TMOs assist rather than drive the show. If there's one thing worse than an insecure referee it's an over-zealous, recently-retired match official sitting in the outside broadcast unit driving the interaction. To that add my consistent bugbear and that is the role of former touch judges, now known as assistant referees. I couldn't tell you when I last witnessed one of those running the line (the most strategic position of all) make a definitive call, thereby obliterating the need "to go upstairs".

2) A good starting point for those running the line would be to ensure the team kicking off (as in restarts) are penalised for offside, being way ahead of the kicker at the point of contact. Watch how little the offside rule is applied and how it is consistently abused as a result.

3) Forward passes are called for what they are. I couldn't tell you when I last saw an inside pass from a 10 or 12 to a blindside winger coming across that wasn't embarrassingly forward and pinged for what it was.

4) In relation to the abuse of rules, my biggest bugbear continues with the inability of match officials to recognise so-called, last-ditch tackling on try-scorers (specifically at the corner) when the intent and skulduggery is there for all to see. Unfortunately it is going to take a really serious injury to the unprotected player in the act of scoring before this hideous act is actually recognised for what it is. When did you last see a game restart with a penalty to the try-scoring team on halfway? A possible 10-point scoring swing might just provide some pause for thought.

5) That the inevitable Rugby World Cup hype is nailed early. Next season, not this.

6Connacht and Ulster close the gap on Munster and all three close the ever-growing gap on Leinster.

7) Joey Carbery, Robin Copeland and Jordi Murphy prove the influential cross-provincial signings I believe all three can at Munster, Connacht and Ulster respectively.

8) High performance director David Nucifora continues with the enlightening job he is doing in breaking down old barriers at and through Lansdowne Road.

9) Munster finally discover a golden midfield triangle wearing numbers 10, 12 and 13. Not since Ronan O'Gara, Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki have they come even remotely close.

10) The likes of Jordan Larmour, Keith Earls (below), Andrew Conway and Tiernan O'Halloran and all of the more diminutive players are grabbing the headlines.

Munster star Keith Earls whose team paved the way for the hurling breakthrough. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

11) A second set of halves step up to the mark at international level. We are strong in reserve in almost every area but at half-back there is realistic concern should anything untoward happen Conor Murray (currently injured) and/or Johnny Sexton. Only the Kiwis are better equipped.

12) Joe signs for life! It is unrealistic, I know but he is the best coach bar none and the best coaching appointment ever by Leinster Rugby and the IRFU. Michael Dawson and Philip Browne, take a bow.

13) The timer be stopped when a scrum collapses and is made to re-form, most particularly in the latter stages of games where professional cynicism continues to play the clock down.

14) The Italian teams finally come of age, feeding into a meaningful Six Nations challenge.

15) London Irish under Declan Kidney turn back the clock and rediscover the Irishness that once made them the undeniable fifth rugby province.

16) New-age provincial fans somehow find a gate that leads to a thing called club rugby.

17)  Ireland's long overdue presence on the world sevens circuit leads to the hosting of an annual event.

18) Toulon, their owner and everything they stand for disappear into relative oblivion.

19) Soccer's more cynical ways - on and off the pitch - don't take hold. Matt O'Connor's sacking after one match has an ominous ring.

20) And finally, come Saturday, May 25 when Celtic Park takes centre stage in hosting the 2019 Champions Cup, that the Irish presence is marked. Take two from Leinster, Munster and Ulster and paradise will be just that.

Bring it on.

Irish Independent

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